The Abyss has been one of my favorite movies for a long time. I’m a huge fan of James Cameron, probably because he’s way more hands-on than most directors. He has no qualms about shooting the camera himself or spending a few days in ProTools mixing. A director doing this kind of work on a huge movie set is almost unheard of. His technical standards are very high, many times to the detriment of the story or quality of the acting. When it comes to being a director, I’ve learned as much from James Cameron’s movies about what to do, as what not to do.
The reason I picked The Abyss for this list is the Special Edition cut and how different it is from the theatrical release.
For the last few years there has been a glut of Unrated or Extended Editions. A movie might have a 3 second shot put back in and the marketing machine takes over calling it the OMG Look Out Boobies! Unrated Edition. When in fact nothing of substance has been added. For the majority of Unrated or Extended Editions, it’s usually things that slowed the pace of the movie down and should have been cut anyway. Any good director or editor would cut these shots or scenes for the sake of the movie. I haven’t seen too many extended editions that I liked. I prefer editing that moves the story along. I’m a huge fan of getting to the second act as quickly as possible. But more on that in another article.
The Abyss Special Edition is different. The original cut of The Abyss was exceedingly long. I want to say in the 3.5 hour range. Cameron states in the commentary that the only way to bring the movie down was to cut entire scenes and subplots, not just trim shots. Because he wanted to progress the story forward, that meant scenes involving Virgil and Lindsey and their backstory. It also meant cutting down some great early scenes with the crew, like when they’re singing Little Feat’s “Willin'”. Cutting scenes like this means pushing the story forward at the expense of the audience forming a bond with the characters.
Losing or trimming those scenes wasn’t destructive to the story, so I can understand them being cut. But the major cut doesn’t happen until Virgil plunges into the depths to dismantle the atomic bomb. Once down with the aliens, it all changes. In the original version, the aliens flash the typed banter between Virgil and Lindsey on the screen. Then they raise the crippled rig to the surface. I’ll admit, it never made much sense to me. It felt like a very rushed third act, but I could never put my finger on why.
In the Special Edition, the aliens flash images and video of war, dictators and human destruction. They show Virgil that they are sick of humans and their destruction and have made the oceans rise up to take out the human race via massive tsunamis. Virgil then defends the human race and convinces the aliens to call back the tsunamis. It completely changes the entire tone of The Abyss and what the movie is about.
After seeing it for the first time, I was shocked and had to watch the movie again. After many viewings, I can see why it was taken out. But at the same time, the theatrical cut of the film seems to be missing something. You could say the theatrical cut was more about Virgil and Lindsey. But having some of their personal scenes missing, you can’t really make that argument. The Special Edition tries to cover so much ground, that you’re not really sure what the director is trying to say. But by cutting too much, the story goes from expansive to muddy, instead of tight.
I chose this movie for this list because of the 2 very different versions presented. As the director or editor, what would you do? The studio has told you to cut, what would you cut? Do you think they made the right decisions? More than anything, the Special Edition shows how much impact editing can have on the story. It’s rare to see multiple versions of a film, and in doing so, we get some great insight to the process and the decisions made by the editor and director.
“Movies Every Filmmaker Should Own” is a regular series on EricHansen.tv. The point of this series is not to say you need to watch The Godfather because it’s the greatest movie ever made. Plenty of film critics have lists like that. It’s to highlight movies that are advancing the craft of filmmaking, whether it’s through the contents of the movies themselves, or in many cases the extras and commentaries that are contained within. These are the movies that inspire me more in their construction, and are great learning tools for different aspects of the craft.